There is a young girl, right now, staring in a mirror in a New York shopping mall observing her expanding waist. There is a girl, right now, forcing herself to run an extra mile so she can eat her favourite cheesecake tonight. There is a girl, right now, lying helplessly on an operating table about to go under the knife. There is a girl, at this very moment, wishing she was the beautiful Heidi Klum prancing down the runway of a Hollywood fashion show. The saying ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ is a complex phrase with many underlying questions.
Different people possess different kinds of beauty and different cultures disagree on what is considered beautiful and what is not. So the question remains; why do physical attributes play such a vital role for success in people’s lives today? Some of the reasons will be discussed in this paper outlining the perception of beauty and the implications it has on people’s health, careers, and social development. “The standards of beauty are universal both across individuals in a single culture and across all cultures” (Cunningham, Druen, and Barbee 1997: 112).
If this is true, then the standards of beauty would be learned and acquired through years of socialization within cultures. One such explanation is that people from all cultures share the same standards of beauty because they are innate or born with these standards. In the mid 1980’s, infants as young as two and three months old took part in a study concerning beauty. It was concluded that the infants would stare longer at the faces who were considered to be attractive, than the faces that possess unattractive qualities.
The study was conducted many years later and proved to show the same results with newborn babies. Another experiment involving 12 month old infants were shown strangers wearing masks. One of the strangers wore an attractive mask while the other wore and unattractive mask. The infants showed greater pleasure, playfulness, and more attachment when interacting with the stranger wearing the attractive mask. All of these studies demonstrate similar experience with parents of small children. For example most young children respond favourably to a good-looking person and cry when an unattractive person plays with them.
Since young infants do not have enough time to learn this through socialization, it is safe to say beauty is innate or part of universal human nature (Miller and Kanazawa 2007: 65). There are features that seem to represent physically attractive faces: “bilateral symmetry, averageness and secondary sexual characteristics” (Little 2002: 66). Attractive people are healthier, having greater physical fitness, and prove to live longer. With these qualities alone, one would naturally be attracted to the opposite sex for these reasons (Bloch 1994: 7). The ideal of female beauty is blonde hair and blue eyes.
Not even the media today has influenced the blonde bombshell theory. Women have been dying their fair hair for centuries. Even when there were no television or magazines, woman were still dying their hair blonde in the fifteenth and sixteenth century. Why is blonde hair seen as attractive? There is evidence to suggest that woman were dying their hair blonde long before peroxide (a chemical used to color hair) was even discovered in 1812. It seems then that men have innate psychological mechanisms that predispose them to prefer women with blonde hair. Peoples ideas are shaped and hard-wired and it is no coincidence that men prefer blondes” (Knight 2008: 26), states Matthew Bronstad of Brander’s University (Miller and Kanazawa 2007: 59). A preference for blue eyes seems to be culturally accepted as an ideal. Blue eyes are not just considered to be attractive for woman but for men as well (Feinman and Gill 1978: 48). It is not unusual for girls today to grow their hair long. Today girls are continually wanting longer locks due to the strong male preference for long hair.
In the article “A Lock on Love,” men rated faces surrounded by long, lustrous hair as prettier. Men associated women with longer hair as being healthy, intelligent and mature. The researcher suggests that long hair demands time and energy for growth and grooming so extended locks advertize both health and wealth (Somes 2008: 30). Even though the quality ‘beauty’ does exist, there are differences of the ideal beauty from one culture to the next. “In the Western Africa Tribe young women choose their husbands on the basis of their beauty: The ontestants take part in the yaake, a line-up which they sing and dance, rolling and crossing their eyes. They keep this up for hours, aided by stimulating drugs beforehand. Throughout all of this, old ladies hurl criticisms at those who do not live up to the Fulani idea of beauty” (Wolf 1990: 42). Not all cultures regard thinness as a means of beauty. For example, in Belize two ideal body types for women are accepted as beautiful. A woman can be shaped like “a bottle of coke with hour glass curves, or resemble a bottle of Fanta with less at the top and more at the bottom” (Blakeslee 2007: 26).
For women in Belize it is shape, not size that they dress to accentuate (Blakeslee 2007: 24-27). Similarly, not all cultures view muscularity as the ideal beauty for men. Dr. Harrison Pope, a Harvard Psychiatrist constructed a machine called a somatomorphic matrix, which measured ones body image perception. A male subject is asked to look at a computer screen where he will see a picture of a male. He is asked to adjust the size of the man according to muscularity and level of fat that best describes his own body.
He also has to keep in mind the body that he thinks women would have the highest preference for. It was concluded that “American, French, and Austrian men picked an ideal body image that was twenty-eight pounds more muscular than themselves” (Blakeslee 2007: 43). More importantly, women seemed to prefer a man’s body size that closely resembled an average male, with less muscle (Blakeslee 2007: 41-43). This ideal image of beauty whether socialized or innately acquired does implicate how society reacts to us as humans.
For most people, important beliefs about the body and beauty begin to bubble into consciousness in early adolescents. By the end of teenage years, these beliefs have congealed into a coherent body image, right along with stereotypes (Martin 2007: 4-5). Teenagers today struggle with the acceptance of their body image, looking for the satisfaction of simply having the ‘perfect’ body. Unfortunately young adolescents hold all sorts of unhealthy beliefs about beauty and their bodies. A teen can take pride in their body, or they can cover it in shame.
The image of beauty in society today seems to be portraying the message of ‘skinnier is better’. This dangerous body schema has disconnected people out of touch with reality. Today adolescents are suffering from a false sense of identity. All of these negative thoughts can lead to deadly medical consequences such as eating disorders as severe as anorexia. All of this attention striving for total beauty and the ultimate goal of effortless perfection is taking a toll on young people today (Martin 2007: 6). “Beauty is the first impression of total success” (Martin 2007: 18).
A person with beautiful, luscious hair is spotted, and immediately a flurry of other thoughts comes to mind. People now associate her hair with wealth, power, and prestige. This phenomenon is known as the “halo effect” (Martin 2007: 18-19). There have been a number of studies conducted to back up this halo-effect theory. For instance, one study conducted by David Landry and Harold Rigall at the University of Rochester tested the theory that ‘beauty is talent’. Male college students were asked to read an essay, written by a college freshman.
Next, they were asked to evaluate the essay, giving the student a mark based on the quality of the paper, and their ability to write. For each essay, there was a photo attached of the student writer to the paper. It was discovered that one third of the subjects were led to believe that the writer was physically attractive while one third believed the writer was unattractive. The other half of the participants read the essay without a photo attached. However, half of the subjects read a well-written version of the paper, while the other half read a poorly written version.
As predicted, if performance falls below par as in the poor essay writing, attractiveness does matter. The subjects rated the poor essay higher when they saw the attractive picture thus concluding one “may be able to get away with inferior work if they are beautiful” (Landry and Sigall 1974: 302). There is an increasing amount of research based on the importance of physical attractiveness in everyday life in relation to the success of an individual. Two experiments examined the effects of having a physically attractive romantic partner on person perception.
In the first experiment, subjects developed opinions of a male person who was presented as a boyfriend of a woman, who was either an attractive or unattractive female. As suspected, the male was seen as more favourable when he appeared with the attractive woman. In the second experiment, male subjects predicted what others would think of them when in either an attractive or unattractive state. As anticipated, the males who were in the attractive-associated condition were viewed as more favourable by a group of participants (Landry and Sigall 1974: 299).
Social psychologists discovered two general findings about beauty and success. One is that “good- looking people having greater social power and can be more persuasive” (Landry and Sigall 1973: 218). The second conclusion is “that all things being equal, physically attractive individuals are liked better than unattractive people” (Landry and Sigall 193: 218). One reason that physical attractiveness is so important is that when choosing a spouse or a partner, it is advantageous to be with someone attractive to gain social status.
This is an innate quality that humans all desire, that is, to be with someone with qualities others admire. Someone with a beautiful date is viewed to have something going for them. What do the millions of people do who are not born beautiful? The serious consequences of striving for beauty are astounding in the world today. The perfect beautiful girl trying to control her appearance spends a great deal of her pay check trying to feel worthy. Plastic surgery is so common today for people of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds.
A staggering amount of money is spent each year in both men and women’s quest for beauty. Even though people are aware of the serious medical risks associated with plastic surgery, they still are willing to risk everything to try and maintain their youth and beauty. People must take back control of this quest for beauty at all costs and learn to love the body they were born with, flaws and all. Mass media clearly has impacted the ideology of beauty. Images on television and billboards exploiting models who have been airbrushed to define perfect beautiful people are the reality today.
We are playing into the hands of the ideology of beauty resulting in an increase in the beauty industry’s profits. Women are exploited in the workforce and are evaluated on their looks and often ignored as their talents as workers. Real economic injustices are happening to women and the ideals of beauty have to be accountable. Looking good clearly has advantages in all aspects of social development. It is also true to say cultural forces definitely play a role in the emergence of physical appearances. What is disturbing is that this trend for the perfection of beauty gives people a false sense of identity.
Social scientists and feminists have argued that the pressure women feel to be beautiful is a product of cultural energies that have emerged over the generation. Regardless of culture, language, religion or race, men everywhere want the same thing as women, and women everywhere want the same thing as men: to be beautiful. References 1. Blakeslee, Sandra and Blakeslee, Matthew. 2007. The Body Has a Mind of its Own. New York: Random House, Inc. 2. Bloch, Konrad. 1994. Blondes in Venetian Paintings, the Nine-Banded Armadillo, and Other Essays in Biochemistry.
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